Investigating lexical and semantic features of Maori English

Starting date
October 1, 2010
Duration (months)
Foreign Languages and Literatures
Managers or local contacts
Degani Marta
New Zealand English, Maori English, metaphor, language contact, narrative, code-switching, loans

The earliest studies on Maori English date back to the 1960s and were carried out in schools with data elicited from Maori children whose performance didn’t meet the standard requirements set by the educational system (see Barham 1965, Benton 1966, Hawkins 1972, McCallum 1978). These studies were mainly focussed on the identification of morpho-syntactic features, which would enable linguists to isolate Maori English from Standard New Zealand English. In the following decades, the scope of investigation was vastly broadened so as to include larger portions of the Maori population and to test them on a wider set of linguistic criteria. As a result, researchers have been able to single out a number of linguistic features which seem to be typical, though not exclusive, of Maori English. They include: - phonological features: o the tendency to merge voiceless and voiced consonants (e.g. /s/ and /z/) (Robertson 1994, Holmes 1996, Bell 2000) o the use of unaspirated /t/ in word-initial position (Holmes 1995, Bell 2000) o the fronting of back vowels (King 1993) o a closer pronunciation of the short front vowel [] as in ‘kit’ (Bell 1997, 2000) o typical syllable-timed rhythm (Holmes and Ainsworth 1996) - grammatical features: o presence of non-standard verb forms (Jacob 1991) - lexical and semantic features: o larger proportions of Maori vocabulary, especially in Maori contexts (Benton 1991) - pragmatic features: o the high-rising terminal contour (Allan 1990, Britain 1992) o the tag eh (Meyerhoff 1994, Stubbe 1999) o minimal feedback (Stubbe 1998) Furthermore, the analysis of communicative strategies has also been concerned with humour (Holmes, Stubbe and Marra 2003), techniques of story-telling (Holmes 1998), and more recently the use of code-switching (Holmes and Stubbe 2004). All these features are very likely to be influenced at least partly by te reo Maori and by Maori ways of interacting in Maori cultural contexts. However, one should also bear in mind that some of these peculiarities can also be found in vernacular Englishes (Bell 2000), and particularly in AAVE (e.g. the term bro, cf. King 1999). The identification of Maori English as a variety, a style, or a register has been another matter of debate. In 1970, Richards commented on the existence of at least two distinct varieties of Maori English: “Maori English 1”, spoken by educated middle-class Maori New Zealanders, and “Maori English 2”, used by a greater number of Maori people belonging to lower social classes. The two labels were later renamed by Holmes (1997) as “standard Maori English” and “vernacular Maori English”. By contrast, the label standard Pakeha English has also started to circulate in New Zealand. From the evidence in the literature one can actually postulate the existence of one Maori English which shifts in its degree of markedness according to how often characteristic elements occur. Thus, it makes sense to consider Maori English as a variety which serves to express and reflect Maori ethnicity and, more essentially, to construct a specific ethnic identity. This can then be contrasted to Maori English as a register whenever it is used by Pakeha speakers as a solidarity marker to show positive attitudes towards Maori culture and values. In light of this lively debate, it seems reasonable to expand the discussion and identify specifically Maori features characterizing Maori English, that is features that are not shared by other types of vernacular English. In particular, more work needs to be done to define lexical-semantic traits of Maori English since this is “the area where there has been the least systematic study” (Holmes 2005: 98). Interestingly enough, Benton suggests that what makes Maori English distinct from other varieties may be a “metaphorical and analogical mode of thought […] a partly autonomous metaphorical system” (Benton 1985: 118). Benton observes that Maori stories and speeches abound in analogy, literary allusions and metaphoricity. These elements can be taken as the reflection of a cognitive system which strongly differs from that of English native speakers. If this the case, then one can also predict that the type of English produced by speakers of Maori carries the traces of a distinctive conceptualization of reality. Overall, the proposed project aims to contribute to the debate on Maori English by attempting to identify lexical-semantic characteristics of Maori English. On a general level, the project tries to avoid the pitfall of seeing Maori as no more than an appropriated part of New Zealand English but rather as an autonomous voice in New Zealand (cf. Harlow 2005 for a discussion on covert attitudes towards Maori). Importo previsto relativo alle missioni: euro 4598

Project participants

Marta Degani


Research facilities